The European commissioner’s announcement of discontinuation of aid to Palestine, though countermanded, was hugely damaging.
On October 9th, two days after the attack by Hamas on Israel, Olivér Várhelyi, the member of the European Commission responsible for neighbourhood and enlargement, announced on ‘X’ the immediate suspension of all aid from the European Union to the Palestinian population.
This sparked an outcry among EU member states and on the wider international stage. The following day, the commission’s chief spokesperson officially disowned Várhelyi, saying he had acted alone and without consultation. Since then, the episode has been largely forgotten in Europe, overtaken by the dramatic events of the conflict in Israel/Palestine.
Yet it betrays a serious political and institutional faultline, illustrating many abuses and malfunctions within the commission and a growing alliance between the European right and far right. It is essential that all the lessons be learned.
Major political error
First and foremost, this is a major political error which has seriously damaged the EU and its credibility in the world. The commission’s backtracking may have wiped the slate clean in the eyes of many Europeans. But this is not the case elsewhere, where the impression remains of unconditional alignment with the policy of collective punishment of the Palestinians by Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Israeli government. This impression was reinforced over the following days by the fact that the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, did not condemn the inhumane blockade of Gaza.
The crisis in the Sahel and the persistent difficulties encountered with many countries in the ‘global south’ following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have shown, if proof were needed, that a huge gap has opened up over the last few decades between Europe and its neighbours to the south of the Mediterranean. This chasm threatens the future of the union and that of all democracies, were the global south to join forces with the autocracies of the China-Russia axis over the coming years.
Much of this loss of credibility is linked to accusations of double standards. These are based in particular on the undeniable difference between the EU’s behaviour towards Russia in Ukraine, on the one hand, and Israel’s 56-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, on the other, despite numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions and international law. The significant aid the EU provides to the Palestinian population, mainly via the UN Relief and Works Agency and the Palestinian Authority—aid which Várhelyi intended to cut—has not really made up for that contradiction.
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European diplomacy had begun in recent months to try to relaunch the ‘peace process’, notably by approaching the Arab League. Várhelyi’s announcement nullified these efforts. In addition, hundreds of EU staff in the region became potential targets overnight in the extremely tense context there.
Institutional power grab
This episode was also an exceptionally serious institutional power grab. In theory, the ‘college of commissioners’ is not a collection of individuals, each in charge of competences they can manage as they wish, but a collective body where all key decisions are taken at a weekly meeting.
This has always been to some extent a fiction—all the more so with the gradual expansion from six to 27 commissioners. But under the leadership of Von der Leyen, there is no longer any effective collective decision-making: she deals with all matters bilaterally with each of the commissioners, when she does not deal with them alone with her own cabinet. The commissioners on which a particular issue most impinges frequently read in the press about relevant decisions taken by the president or by one of their colleagues.
Várhelyi, appointed by Hungary’s nationalist premier, Viktor Orbán, is one of those most comfortable with this individualistic approach, encouraged by Von der Leyen. It appears he made no effort before his announcement to reach out to the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, the commissioner in charge of crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, or the commissioner for international partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen.
But it seems highly unlikely he would have acted as he did last Monday without having obtained from Von der Leyen, if not explicit consent, at least a nihil obstat. The commission president did indeed not react at all to what would otherwise have appeared a totally unacceptable act of insubordination.
Coup against the council
Várhelyi’s action was also a coup against the Council of the EU and the balance of power among the European institutions. Foreign and security policy depends exclusively on the council, acting unanimously. The commission has no prerogatives in this area. The EU high representative, who chairs the councils of foreign-affairs and defence ministers, is a vice-president of the commission to ensure liaison between these two institutions. But political legitimacy in foreign and security policy derives from the council alone.
On Saturday in Beijing, Borrell made clear that the ‘official position’ of the EU on any foreign policy was set by the European Council and the council of foreign ministers: ‘And the position is clear that we certainly defend the right of Israel to defend itself against the attack that [it] has been suffering, but as any right, it has a limit. And this limit is international law and international humanitarian law.’ Yesterday, in advance of an extraordinary European Council meeting convened for tomorrow evening, its members said: ‘We reiterate the importance to ensure the protection of all civilians at all times in line with International Humanitarian Law.’
In practice, though, the commission has a great deal of leverage in this arena, notably through trade agreements, climate policy and, above all, control of the EU budget. Since the beginning of her term in 2019, Von der Leyen has tried to take the lead on foreign policy—although the treaties do not give her any role—thereby fuelling an internal institutional war which has on a number of occasions been highly damaging to the EU’s image. And all this in the service of a very Atlanticist vision of an alignment of the EU with the United States on all major issues, far from being shared by all member states.
She had already teamed up with Várhelyi to pull off a diplomatic coup in July, signing a highly questionable and contested memorandum of understanding with the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, on people movement. Along with the far-right Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and her Dutch conservative counterpart, Mark Rutte, they bypassed all the European decision-making processes set out in the treaties (and decisions taken by the Court of Justice of the EU clarifying those texts). Borrell denounced this in a letter to Várhelyi at the beginning of September, leaked to the press.
This objective alliance between the European right, in the person of Von der Leyen of the European People’s Party, and the far right of Várhelyi and Meloni is not the least worrying aspect of all this. The traditional compromise among social democrats, liberals and conservatives on leading the EU is cracking.
The conservatives seem increasingly tempted to ally with a growing far right and the Von der Leyen / Várhelyi axis illustrates the drift. This is very worrying for the future of the EU, from the standpoint not only of Europe’s internal policies but also its geopolitical positioning: when it is essential for the union to draw closer to the global south, this reactionary alliance can only widen the gap.
For all these reasons, it is essential that the serious political and institutional misconduct committed by Varhelyi not only not be forgotten, but that all consequences be drawn.